People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 33

August 16, 200

A Fraternal Argument with Dr Sen

Prakash Karat

PROFESSOR Amartya Sen has recently reiterated his criticism of the Left's political practice in India. In meetings and interviews in London in June, Dr Sen is quoted to have said: "I am on record as saying I was disappointed with the Left for not focussing on issues that are central issues of social justice and focussing much more on India's sovereignty and that kind of question." He also chided the Left for "neglecting such issues as hunger and illiteracy and focussing on such issues as the Indo-US nuclear deal which is not a central issue for social justice in India -- no matter whether it was a good or bad contract". (The Telegraph, June 22, 2009)

Dr Sen had made similar remarks last year after the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government. While making such observations, Amartya Sen has also emphasised that he considers himself on the Left and that his criticism should be treated as coming from a friend of the Left. The media have also been at him to get him to make adverse comments about the Left something that he himself has noted.

We are indebted to Amartya Sen for many insights into the nature of inequality and injustice in our society and system. His views on social justice in India and the glaring failure to address the basic problems of hunger, malnutrition and the need for effective public education and health systems are not only relevant but needs to be translated into action. The Left values his analysis and prescriptions to deal with these basic problems. His trenchant criticism of the political class for its callousness and neglect of hunger and large-scale undernourishment in India is perfectly valid and justified.

While stating this, we would like to take up one point of criticism made by Dr Sen regarding the Left. He has charged the Left with neglecting to take up the issues of hunger, malnutrition and illiteracy and focussing on the nuclear deal and the defence of national sovereignty. This is simply not true. Presumably, Dr Sen is referring to the period when the Left parties were extending support to the UPA government, that is, between 2004 and 2008. What did the Left do over this? A look at the record would confirm that the Left consistently took up the issues of food security and the public distribution system, the rural employment guarantee scheme, the impact of WTO rules on agriculture and farmers, land rights for tribal people, the need for greater allocations for health and education in union budgets, and the whole gamut of neo-liberal policies that adversely affected the well-being of the Indian people.

 A UPA-Left coordination committee functioned during the first three years of the UPA government. A record of the meetings of this committee would show that they were dominated by economic policy issues and the question of implementation of the pro-people measures in the common minimum programme. The twenty notes and more submitted by the Left to this committee are in the public domain. They show that the Left's whole approach was to ensure that the provision of food, a minimum employment guarantee scheme and protection of the rights of the peasants and the rural poor, were kept in focus by the government. The other feature of Left intervention was its resistance to bringing in legislation and policies that opened up the financial sector and the economy to speculative finance capital. The two major pieces of legislation adopted during this period in parliament the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act bear the hallmarks of the intervention by the Left in the changes brought about in their texts and the clauses that were amended.
It was not only in the discussions with the UPA and in parliament, but outside these forums, too, that the CPI(M) concentrated its main campaigns and agitations on the three issues of land, food and employment. This followed the call given by its 18th Party Congress held in April 2005 to take up movements related to land, food and employment. All these are basic to the struggle against poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The Left parties waged a constant struggle to increase the allocations for health and education. If the allocations for health and education in union budgets showed an increase in this period, some credit should also be given to the Left for bringing this demand into the limelight.

The conflict with the UPA government on the relations with the United States began when the government signed the Defence Framework Agreement with the US in June 2005. The emerging strategic alliance with the United States, which included the nuclear deal, went against the common minimum programme and the assurance that the UPA government would pursue an independent foreign policy. This does not mean that the Left focussed exclusively on relations with the United States. Throughout this period, the Left raised vital issues concerning the people's welfare and social justice. While opposing the shift in foreign policy and the willingness to adopt positions in alignment with the US strategic aims such as on the Iran nuclear issue, the Left persevered in getting the Rural Employment Guarantee Act adopted and ensuring increased allocations in the budget for education and health in the two successive years of 2005-06 and 2006-07. Nevertheless, the Left was not willing to ignore the military collaboration agreement with the United States, the like of which independent India has not signed with any other country. The struggle against neo-liberal economic policies became interlinked with the efforts to push through the agenda set out by the Indo-US Joint CEO Forum, another product of the newly-forged strategic ties.

While the Left pressed for policy measures that Dr Sen himself advocates, the Manmohan Singh government became increasingly more eager than ever to push through measures to increase FDI in banking, insurance, retail trade, higher education and other fields. The UPA government was unwilling to undo the disastrous effects of the targeted public distribution system and move back to the universal public distribution system. One of the major reasons for the appalling levels of child malnutrition in India today, especially in the tribal areas, is the collapse of the PDS and its narrowing down by means of targeting.

It is in the context of the depredations of global finance capital, and pressures to withdraw state regulation, intervention in the domestic economy and the limited protection offered to sections of the working people, that Marxists have come out in defence of national sovereignty. Surely Dr Sen recognises our concern about the links between food security and national sovereignty.

It is not any "gut anti-Americanism" or any exaggerated fear of the power of the United States that influences the Left. It is a recognition that the neo-liberal policies pursued by the Indian ruling classes get their greatest sustenance from the strategic link with the United States. This link not only affects foreign policy but the domestic economic agenda as well.

Dr Sen shares the common social-democratic assumption that imperialism is a thing of the past. He would accept there are some exceptional imperialist acts such as the war on Iraq, but for the rest, imperialist-driven globalisation with its twin instruments of neo-liberal policies and military interventions are not germane to the central issues of social justice that are close to Dr Sen's heart. Fortunately, the Left in India has not, so far, delinked its fight for social justice and against social and economic exploitation from the fight against the predatory neo-liberal policies perpetuated by imperialism. The Left has tried to integrate its strategy of fighting the forces that perpetuate injustice, poverty and exploitation in India with the struggle against the globalised imperialist system. The test for all Left and Communist formations in these times of imperialist-driven finance capital and of neo-liberal policies at home is to be able to stand firm against both and work for alternative policies that are directed towards the priorities that Dr Sen sets out in his concept of social justice.

 The inability to recognise this role of the Left leads Dr Sen virtually to recommend that the Left play a subsidiary role, one of supporting the Congress, or at best to act as a sort of Left wing of the Congress party. More than six decades after independence, experience has taught the Left that this is not the path to take. The correct course, which is more arduous, is to work for a democratic transformation that will necessarily involve putting an end to at least the worst forms of class and social exploitation existing in India.

Dr Amartya Sen's engagement with the Left in India has been by and large positive. He was right in pointing out that the Left Front government of West Bengal needs to do more in the spheres of primary education, literacy and health. At the national level, he would be right to say that the Left needs to do much more to bring the issues of hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy and deprivation to the forefront and to build powerful movements along these themes. But it is not very helpful to counterpose, as he has, the struggle for a better life for the people to the fight against imperialist domination. The two have to go together.